Ah the spring – the season of home improvement and renovation.

Spring and summer give birth to a boost in the number of people that hire skilled contractors and trades people to help them with project and home renovation work. Being in civil litigation, I often consult with people who find themselves in the midst of developing issues with people they have hired to assist them with various projects.

Recently, a couple walked into my office that were having a dispute with a contractor they had hired. This experience brought to light several important but common mistakes made by many consumers when hiring a contractor. As always, I began by asking the client for the basic description of the matter and for information related to the parties themselves. In their particular case, the contractor is alleged to have walked away from a basement apartment conversion renovation job where approximately two thirds of the work was left incomplete and with over an 80% deposit in his pocket. The project was estimated to be worth $23,000. I also discovered that the client had only a contact phone number for the contractor in question; no address and no website for contact. We discussed their options, which in their case included: walking away and hiring another contractor to complete the outstanding work at a financial loss, civil litigation to attempt to recover the balance of funds equivalent to work outstanding, settlement communications and mediation.

It is amazing how many trusting, well intentioned people enter into agreements with contractors and trades people for renovation work where they leave themselves open to liability.

This article intends to educate people on how best to avoid finding themselves in disputes with their contractor and also how best to protect themselves in the case that they need to exercise a legal right to recover damages.

Here are some helpful tips to ensure that you are asking the right questions when hiring a contractor or tradesperson for a renovation project:

Job or Project Estimate Always get a detailed estimate prior to the exchange of any deposit or access to your property. A proper estimate should break down by task, product and sub project the cost breakdown of the project and exactly what work will be performed. It is not adequate to have an estimate that states a “basement renovation – $6000”.

Be Specific  Don’t be afraid to ask in writing for the exact product that will be used on your property. To use flooring as an example, it is not sufficient to say that “laminate flooring” will be used for your project. A better description would look something like “Douglas Floor brand, 10mm laminate flooring in colour Light Beech.” Generally, descriptions for products should include things like specific colour name, style number, thickness and manufacturer, where applicable, depending on the product or service. This not only ensures that you receive the desired look and feel for the project but also protects against substitute products of a lesser quality or grade being used.

Quotes or estimates that differentiate the cost of installation or labour aside from the cost of the product are advisable and recommended. Good clauses can include but are not limited to who will clean up the debris from the project, warranties on work completed and the duration of the warranties and payment terms, etc.

Possible questions you may want to ask your contractor can include, but are not limited to:

  • years in business
  • will they be using sub-contractors
  • what warranties are included, if any; for how long are they in effect and what do they cover
  • who will look after permits, licences, inspections, etc.

Time Frames Although many contractors are hesitant to specify a firm completion date for a project, most are happy to give a time frame of estimated completion. I am privy to cases where contractors have attempted to complete work on Sundays or other inopportune times after a relationship breakdown with the home owner. Be sure to communicate your expectations about when is agreeable for work to be completed and ensure that it complies with any legal obligations you may have surrounding noise bi-laws, tenants rights, etc.  Will there be penalty if the job runs long? As with most things, this is for you and your contractor to determine up front.

Identify Your Contractor Make sure that you have a working phone number and address for your contractor. Smaller or independent contractors may not have websites but in any case ensure that you have a mailing address as phone numbers can be easily disconnected. Note: many business cards these days only have a phone number, e-mail address or website address. Ensure that you have a contact address in case you ever need to make a claim or need to report the contractor to a bi-law officer, etc. It is advisable to request the contractor’s drivers licence, business license number and proof of insurance. These can then be used to verify that you indeed have the adequate information needed should you need to take action in the instance of a dispute or issue. Does your contractor have public liability, property damage and WSIB insurance coverage? Ask for proof – it is your duty of care to ensure that the person working on your property is in fact licensed and insured. If the contractor is uninsured or has uninsured employees and a person is injured on your property, you could be sued and held responsible for pecuniary damages for worker’s injuries sustained while on your property. Your lack of care in selecting a qualified contractor could in some cases be seen as negligence.

In Ontario, there are currently 23 trades in which certification or licensing is considered mandatory.  If you want to see if your contractor or trade requires a license and if your prospective contractor is on that list, you can visit the Ontario College of Trades website for a full listing at www.collegeoftrades.ca.

References It is perfectly acceptable to ask for work references when considering hiring a professional to do work on your home or other property. It is also advisable to do your research outside of what the prospective contractor themselves provides you. Resources such as the Better Business Bureau and websites such as www.homestars.ca, www.yelp.ca and www.trustedpros.ca are good references to aid in your research. Sites such as these are especially good as consumers themselves can contribute reviews based on their experiences with contractors they have used in the past.

Second Opinion Obtain multiple quotes. The key here is to get quotes for the exact same comparable. Ensure that you have a good knowledge of what you want going in – use the same criteria when getting each quote to get a fair and accurate comparison. Comparing apples to oranges is like comparing laminate to hard wood – both are flooring material, but you will get a much different quote when one is specified over the other.

What Do I Do If I Have A Contractor Dispute

Common law and statuary laws such as the Consumers Protection Act allow the public various remedies should they find themselves victims of fraud, theft or incomplete work. As with all legal matters however, when relief is sought therein lies a burden of proof on the plaintiff to adequately prove that damage and many consumers under estimate the work that that entails. Damages can include a financial judgment awarded in court or return of property, to bi-law infractions. Sometimes there may even be a criminal element to a matter if the contractor has created a potentially dangerous or dangerous environment for the owner or public. Should you feel that a dangerous environment has been created most municipalities have inspectors that do site visits to ensure safety protocols and laws regarding safety are being adhered to.

In Summary The best advice is to foster a respectful, open working relationship with your contractor. The due diligence you put forward in vetting the contractor up front could likely be the most important factor in determining whether you find yourself in the office of a legal representative seeking advice on a dispute in the future.  What most folks don’t realize is the work, time and expense required to compile a case when legal action is required to recover damages. Expert reports by trades to quantify damage can be required, statements and/or testimony may be needed and in many cases a war of ‘he said, she said’ arises due to inadequate work agreements, amongst other things.

Unfortunately, there is no standard agreement that can properly assist people to navigate these conversations with prospective contractors. Every project and working relationship has it’s unique elements and as such this article serves as a guide to help you through your conversations and aid in designing agreements with your contractor that are thorough and geared toward your particular project. Generally consumers can protect themselves from nasty contractor disputes by asking the right questions up front, doing their due diligence in vetting the contractor and negotiating a thorough estimate that details the project in writing. Remember: it is not pushy to require the details in writing! A quality and professional contractor will never refuse you your right to ask for the details of the work you are hiring them to do to do in writing. A solid and detailed agreement, with the necessary provisions, serves to protect both the contractor and the consumer from miscommunications and acts as a reference for both parties as to what they are to expect.

For a free consultation on your contractor dispute please contact www.zoomassociates.com

Disclaimer: This article is not intended to be legal advice, please contact your local licensing, regulatory and legal bodies for the specific requirements of parties in your jurisdiction.

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